David D Kirkpatrick and David E Sanger
Iran said Sunday that within hours it would breach the limits on uranium enrichment set four years ago in an accord with the United States and other international powers that was designed to keep Tehran from producing a nuclear weapon.
The latest move inches Iran closer to where it was before the accord: on the path to being able to produce an atomic bomb.
US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord last year and in May dealt a crippling blow to Iran’s economy by implementing sanctions intended to cut off its oil sales anywhere in the world.
In recent weeks, Tehran has retaliated by making deliberate but provocative violations of the accord, as part of a carefully calibrated campaign to pressure the West into eliminating sanctions that have slashed the country’s oil exports and crippled its economy.
Last week, Iranian officials broke through similar limits on how much nuclear fuel the country could stockpile.
The steps Iran has taken are all easily reversible. Yet the new move Iran said it was taking Sunday — to increase enrichment levels beyond the 3.67% purity that is the ceiling under the deal — is the most threatening.
Speaking at a news conference Sunday in Tehran, the deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said Iran would take additional steps over the limits of the accord in 60-day intervals unless international powers provide sanctions relief as detailed in the deal.
In violating the limits on uranium enrichment, Tehran still remains far from producing a nuclear weapon. It would take a major production surge, and enrichment to far higher levels, for Iran to develop a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium, experts say. It would take even longer to manufacture that material into a nuclear weapon.
But for Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, the breach of the enrichment limit would be a watershed. He is betting that the United States will back away from crushing sanctions or that he can split European nations from the Trump administration, which the Europeans blame for setting off the crisis.
If he is wrong, the prospect of military confrontation lurks over each escalation.